This is a post I’ve been wanting to make for a while now, and this morning, Ken Harnish’s query over at the “Strong And Over-40” Facebook Group spurred me into actually putting pen to paper. Here then, are the observations of a 55-year old gym rat/professional coach:
In my way of thinking there are two types of “0ver-40” lifters: novice and experienced.
Novice And Over 40
As a novice, your efforts should be focused on the following things:
1) Learning and stabilizing lifting technique, especially on key movements such as deadlifts, presses, and squats — learn to maintain a neutral spine, squat to consistent depth each time, etc. Consider hiring a competent coach (maybe even me!), at least for the early outing.
2) Quantify, monitor, and document your nutritional intake, and also bodyweight, and then making appropriate adjustments based on your body’s response to your nutrition plan.
3) Have your hormones checked, and consider testosterone replacement if your levels are low. Why have the hormone status of a 50 year old if you could safely and legally have the hormone status of an 18 year old?
4) A 65 Camero isn’t really an “old” car if it only has 20,000 miles on it. Your chronological age isn’t necessarily a limiting factor in and of itself — it’s more about how much wear and tear you’ve got on the chassis: if you’re 50 with healthy joints, you’ve got much more potential than a 30-year old with lots of injuries.
5) Behaviorally, focus on consistency, not intensity. Your goal is getting to the gym 3-4 times a week (whatever is realistic for your schedule and personal circumstances). Just get to the gym, and once there, do what you can. Focus on movements that involve the most muscle groups and/or allow you to use the most weight on the bar (meaning, a barbell bench press should be prioritized over a barbell curl for example).
6) Your training must basically force your body to adapt, otherwise it’s not going to happen — it’s not natural to be muscular, strong, and lean at any age, particularly when you’re past 40 — that’s why you rarely see it. Monitor strength levels on the key lifts mentioned in point #1, and make it job one to move those numbers upward.
7) Sleep and calories are likely the most important contributors to adequate recovery. You don’t grow when you train, you grow when you recover from training. Hard training without commensurate recovery doesn’t build you up — it breaks you down.
Experienced And Over 40
As an experienced over 40 lifter, the previous points still apply, but there are a few other important considerations to consider:
1) If you’ve been training consistently (and properly) for many years, your potential for improving strength and muscle mass are limited, and that’s the most charitable way I can put it. However there are a few possible loopholes you can exploit:
a) If you’ve been training improperly, there may be untapped opportunities for further development.
b) Muscles that you haven’t trained particularly hard in the past probably have more potential for growth than your “favorite” muscle groups, which by now, are probably very resistant to continued training efforts. For example, if you have trained for many years but have never really trained legs, your lower-body muscles are still essentially “beginners’ to the training process, and as a result, will still be fairly responsive to training.
c) As an experienced trainee, any form of training “novelty” will be a big key to continued progress. For example, if you almost never venture past 10 reps in your training, sets of 20-30 will be particularly effective for hypertrophy development. Using another example, if you habitually take generous rest breaks between sets, try using “insufficient” rests instead — doing so will be a form of novelty.
2) For very experienced lifters, careful programming may be the biggest key to unlocking hidden reserves of untapped potential. Look for ways to optimize what Dr. Mike Isreatel calls “phase potentiation:” sequential blocks of training that build upon each other, such as a 6-week hypertrophy block followed by a 6-week strength block. Optimizing your programming doesn’t actually make you stronger per se, but it does better allow you to display the strength you already have through good fatigue management strategies.
3) Even if you truly have no future potential for improvement, I’d like to make an argument for the value of maintenance training. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot personally at age 55 and having been training for decades. At first, the idea that you can’t make any further progress sounds depressing, but honestly, if I can have my current strength and physique 10 years from now, that actually strikes me as a genuine form of progress. The bottom line is that you should train as if you’re seeking further progress, even if it’s not possible. If your hypertrophy training is simply to prevent the loss of muscle mass, that’s what you need to be doing. When you’re a beast at age 70, you’ll be happy you adopted this mindset, trust me.
Still Have Questions? Good!
This post isn’t really intended to be the answer to all your questions, but instead, inspiration for better questions. I hope it spurred your thinking on the subject, and please chime in with any comments you might have.